My Pilgrimage to Omaha and the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting
Having inherited Berkshire Hathaway shares a good while ago, I have been a shareholder for a number of years. I had read, watched, and otherwise heard that the Annual Meeting is something of a spectacle. Recently, the meeting has been broadcast by Yahoo Finance, of which I have been an avid watcher. With Mr. Munger being 95 and Mr. Buffett 89, I realized my window for attending the Annual Meeting in its present form was shrinking, so I decided to make the leap and go.
Since reading that book, I pored through each of the Berkshire Annual Reports starting all the way back from 1977's Letter onwards. Each year, Mr. Buffett provided a corporate color commentary of Berkshire's incomparable growth. The end of each letter detailed the Annual Meeting, which has grown from being held in a cafeteria to today occupying an entire major sports arena.
I decided I had to see the event first-hand for myself.
With a 2 year-old at home, weekend trips are a different proposition now. My waffling about attending meant some real hassles with organizing my trip. Ultimately, I decided to fly in and and out Kansas City - a short 3-hour drive from Omaha. And what a great drive it is. For starters, there was little traffic. Moreover, the midwest plains were a sight to behold. While not spectacular photography, you can see the farms here:
And for anyone concerned about renewables, Iowa is the place for you. Iowa - I've heard - is the Saudi Arabia of wind, and it shows. Windmills dot the landscape as you can see here:
Interestingly, Berkshire Hathaway has a significant energy business in Iowa that has grown and grown over the years and continues to be a major part of the company. The man behind Berkshire Energy's enviable track record - Greg Abel - is now a Vice Chairman of the company.
I intentionally did little research (I mean Googling) about Omaha before arriving...I preferred to be surprised. The city itself was a bit smaller and less crowded than I anticipated. There was nothing remarkable about the Downtown Area that caught my attention. Creighton University - for those interested in NCAA Basketball Tournament brackets - has a very nice campus.
In 1988, Berkshire purchased Borsheim's Jewelry Store. Berkshire puts on a cocktail party at the store the day prior to the meeting. I had to go and see this place I had read so much about and it did not disappoint. The store is exceptionally large, and while I am not a frequent purchaser of their wares, I can say the selection is immense.
The party has become quite a spectacle - there is a tent outside with live entertainment, an extensive open bar, food, and of course, all the shopping one can do in a jewelry store. It was definitely worth the excursion to go and see the place.
Getting in Line
I did do some pre-gaming for attending the actual meeting, which starts promptly at 8:45 AM on Saturday. Seating is general admission, so of course, to get a decent seat, you have to get in line early. I was not coming all the way to Omaha - and perhaps only coming once - to end up in the rafters, or even worse, the overflow room.
Fortunately, I am an early riser, so I figured showing up around 5 AM would be just fine. It turned out it was, though I was amazed to see how many people were there so early. Indeed, Berkshire shareholders bring a lot of intensity to their ownership.
With the doors opening at 7:30 AM, who you stand in line next to for over 2 hours is a significant emotional event. Fortunately, I ended up standing next to some remarkable people. Moreover, everyone there has a common thread in that he/she is somehow tied to Berkshire, so there is no shortage of discussion topics.
The conversations eventually diverge from Berkshire. My "line mate" was there with his mother and we talked for a long time about his company - a company he founded called "LoanSnap". It was very interesting talking to a founder and hearing some of the challenges he is facing. You can check-out his company here.
Once the doors open, there is security just like at any other major event. Also, no outside food or drinks are allowed as there are full concessions inside.
Once in the arena, the competition for seating is intense, though security enforces the "No Running" policy. The floor seats go first followed by those closest to the stage, which is biased towards one side of the arena as with a regular concert.
I ended up at what I would call "mid-court", which was pretty decent. You can see my vantage point here:
Again who you sit next to is another important variable of the experience. I was again fortunate here...I sat next to a young married couple from New York who were both attorneys. The husband founded a company that does business in - of all places - Uruguay. His wife was born in Pakistan. Again, there was no shortage of discussion topics.
After getting seated, there is roughy an hour plus to wait for the formal event to start. During this time, you can, of course, visit with your seat mates. Additionally, they play music that has been customized for Berkshire. For example, Alicia Keys recorded a cover of her own "New York" song, though she subbed "Berkshire" for New York. Honestly, I cannot recall if the lyric "concrete jungle where dreams are made of" was altered - but you get the idea.
On top of all that, the video displays in the arena detail many of Berkshire's subsidiary companies. Some are very well-known - Geico, BNSF, See's Candy, and Dairy Queen for example. Others, are less familiar to some. For example, if you are driving on the highway and see a big rig hauling an "XTRA"-branded trailer...that is a Berkshire asset. Similarly, you may see a McLane delivery truck at a gas station, that too is a Berkshire subsidiary. There are numerous others.
The Berkshire Movie
I read much about the Berkshire Movie in the Annual Reports over the years. Because many celebrities give their time freely in making the production, Mr. Buffett directs the movie not be broadcast and that attendees not record it. Therefore, having never seen one, this was one of the more anticipated items on my agenda.
All in all, the movie is more of a series of commercials for both Berkshire investees (like Coke) and subsidiaries. Think of it as watching a continuous run of Super Bowl commercials. All are well-produced and it was indeed fun to watch.
This year, the dramatic part of it dealt with Mr. Buffett going to Apple's design studio to make something. One of the funnier scenes had Apple employees speculating about what was being concocted in the design studio. One Apple Employee suggested a "Time Machine". They cut to a scene where today's Warren Buffett has his younger self zap in (utilizing the supposed Time Machine). Warren asks his younger self, "Are you me?", to which his younger self replies, "Yes". Warren simply tells his younger self "Buy Apple" and the younger Warren zaps out. I thought it was funny - perhaps you had to be there.
I believe Mr. Buffett always includes something about the Salomon Brothers scandal back in 1991 as a reminder of how things can go way, way wrong for a company. If you have not seen his testimony, I strongly recommend watching it here. Today's corporate leaders (and the rest of us) could garner quite a bit about accountability, ownership, and crisis management by imitating the behaviors displayed in these few minutes.
The Good Part
Finally, at 9:15 - nearly 5 hours after I woke up - the two stars finally made their appearance. Their entrance is rather unexciting - how much can an 89 & 95 year-old do when they walk and are wheeled in. Nevertheless, it is obvious the attendees hold both in high regard ad rightfully so. For me, it was the embodiment of 25 years of reading, watching, and wondering. I don't remember if I had goose bumps, though for added effect, assume I did.
The meeting starts with Mr. Buffett reviewing the quarterly results for the first quarter of the year. The condensed financials take only one side and he provides explanations about certain aspects of the earnings release.
After this brief explanation, the questions begin. In its current format, a panel of 6 professionals, 3 from media and 3 from investment institutions ask questions from shareholder submissions received via email. Also, there are about 10 microphones scattered throughout the arena where shareholders in attendance can also ask questions.
In recent years, the beginning part of the questions have dealt heavily with share buybacks, dividends (or lack thereof), and Berkshire's mounting cash hoard. Also, the year's crisis - Wells Fargo was in the spotlight again this year - is another common topic. Government policies - be it income taxes, fiscal policy, or health care - were also touched on.
In addition to those, some questioners inquire about potential Berkshire common stock purchases, which always brings a version of "no comment". You'd think the questioners would know the answer to those questions...why waste an opportunity when you know you're going to get a "no comment".
Some attendees have the courage to ask some unorthodox questions. For example, one shareholder asked, "What was your favorite investment?" Mr. Buffett said his was buying into - I'm not making this up - a Duck Club where oil was later discovered. And Mr. Munger quickly recalled an investment where he made 30 times his money. Interestingly, both Warren and Charlie are like the rest of us...they quickly remember the outlier winners and losers. See, billionaires are not so different from us.
The question and answer period is overall very informative and I am impressed that both those men sit on an island and take any and all questions with no clue what is coming their way. Obviously, they are very experienced; however, literally the whole world is watching. In my view, one word - impressive.
They break for lunch at noon and then start the same drill at 1 PM and go for a few more hours of the same types of questions. While none of the responses were "market moving", I will say that the wisdom provided is worth the effort of attending - there is something different about being there in-person. Hearing a simple explanation of why not to invest in Bitcoin makes you want to forever swear cryptocurrencies off as an "investment". In the interest of space and time, I won't go into specific lessons I have garnered from Mr. Buffett - trust me, it would be a lengthy read.
In an adjacent exhibit hall, Berkshire subsidiaries have temporary stores and displays for all shareholders to see. You can see everything from a Forest River RV to the interior of a NetJet corporate plane. It is part Las Vegas convention, part shopping mall. Overall, it is an enormous assortment of displays.
My personal favorite display was the BNSF train set, complete with my favorite - the double stack rail car. Here is a picture of it (note the famous Geico Gecko in the background):
Since I live in Memphis, where I see BNSF trains every day, I had some questions about rail operations, which the BNSF associates were happy to discuss. Not to spoil any future surprise: don't be alarmed if you see conductor-less trains coming on-line soon.
While the travel was a bit cumbersome and the crowds Disney World large, the excursion was definitely worth the investment. It is not every day you get to see two of your heroes in-person. Moreover, Berkshire puts together a very enjoyable weekend for all comers, which is a nice touch from a best of the best company...the Annual Meeting tremendously enhances the Berkshire legacy.
If you have a chance to attend, I strongly recommend it. I am not sure how many more years Warren and Charlie can keep it up. However, based on what I saw this year, I would say they have at least a few more innings left in them.